India: The State of States

In its annual 'State of the States' survey, India Today magazine – the South Asian equivalent to Time, right down to its red window cover – put Bihar at the bottom among large states in eight categories ranging from economic output to electricity consumption. This hardly comes as a surprise as Bihar has earned an 'F' each year since rankings were first published five years ago.

Based on statistics from central government sources, about 37.5 percent of Bihar's population lives below the poverty line, versus a national average of 27 percent. (This is defined as the availability of at least 2,400 calories per capita per day for rural areas, and 2,100 for urban areas.) Per capita income is just over $150, a pittance considering the national average is close to $500.

Like peeling an onion, it gets more painful with each layer: Barely 14 percent of households in the state have an electricity connection; the literacy rate stands at 46 percent and only 37 percent of children over 10 years old have completed primary education; and for every 1,000 children delivered as many as 60 die at birth, largely due to the absence of medical assistance.

In key developmental areas such as agriculture, health and governance, the state scored less than one on a scale of 10. That other states not long ago on par with Bihar have surged ahead on all fronts compounds its woes. With its fertile terrain, the Bihar nonetheless has an average yield per hectare of 1,535 kg compared to 3,943 for Punjab, with overall agriculture production dropping each year. Although water is never in short supply (as annual floods show), only 60 percent of arable land is irrigated.

The gloom is not absolute, however. Among other upshots, Bihar is the only state in India to have 50 percent of municipal bodies reserved for women. The innovative state property tax system is a model of efficiency that has been copied in Sri Lanka and as far as Africa and praised by the United Nations. State courts have also processed more criminals than courts in any other Indian state in the past two years, though this is not entirely laudable given the preponderance of criminality in Bihar.

The India Today survey furthermore reveals that Bihar posted the third best poverty drop at 12.94 percent, after Assam (21 percent) and Himachal Pradesh (18.8 percent). Additionally, overall access to and quality of health care posted a slight improvement.

At a conference prior to the release of the survey, Finance Minister P. Chidambaram claimed India would be able to remove "abject poverty" within 20 years -- if economic growth continued at its brisk clip, which clocked in at 9.4 percent last year. He also said it was a "myth" that states don't have enough money to deal with pressing internal problems, presumably a veiled reference to Bihar and other flood-affected states that have vied with little success for millions in extra funds from the central government to speed recovery.